If it were a prize for the fastest climb in the world rankings, that particular trophy would land instantly in Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron’s arms. 15th at the Europeans last year and 13th at the Worlds, the French won the gold medal at this year’s edition of the continental competition, a month after getting the bronze at the first Grand Prix Final of their senior career. A meteoric rise in ice dancing – one never seen before in this particular discipline – that speaks mountains of their talent; a rise that astounded even the main characters of the story, the skaters themselves. “This whole season has been a big surprise for us. Our goals were a lot less high than what we did, and I think we just keep being surprised by ourselves”, Guillaume Cizeron said at the press conference after their free skate in Stockholm. What’s next for them? The Worlds, of course – and their scores at the Europeans (71.06 points for their SD, 108.91 for the free and 179.97 overall) make them actual contenders for the gold medal in Shanghai. So World, watch out: the French have started – and what a way to start! – their road to 2018 PyeongChang.
by Florentina Tone
Still, for those paying attention to Gabriella and Guillaume in recent years, this isn’t a surprise. It is, in fact, a confirmation. Two years ago, in Milan, the French training in Lyon with Muriel Zazoui, Romain Haguenauer and Olivier Schoenfelder took the silver medal at 2013 Junior Worlds – and I for one was amazed: their talent, freshness, originality struck me while watching their free dance to “Money” and “Hey You” by Pink Floyd (Virtue/Moir’s program to Pink Floyd, Guillaume’s favorite dance in the history of the discipline, might have had something to do with choosing that particular music to skate to…).
In 2013-2014, their first season as seniors, Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron made quite an impression on the figure skating world with their daring, confident routines (remember their 5th place at Trophée Eric Bompard?) – but it was only during this particular season that their scores started to match their amazing potential. In the meantime, they had followed Romain Haguenauer, their coach, to Montreal, to find there a great team of professionals who kept working on their improvement. In fact, their success these days is also team Haguenauer-Dubreuil-Lauzon-Denis’ success – and, surely, the best is yet to come.
One of the five French ice dance couples taking gold at the Europeans over the years
At the Europeans in Stockholm, 19-year-old Gabriella Papadakis and 20-year-old Guillaume Cizeron stood out a mile with their performances; their talent is so obvious that makes people rise to their feet with emotion. On January 29, in Globe Arena from Stockholm, you just couldn’t resist being carried away by the intriguing, passionate story of their short dance. Capturing the essence of flamenco – they did work with Antonio Najarro in Madrid last May – the French performed a short dance breathing power, intensity and character. A man and a woman – and their looks, their pride, the sharpness of their gestures; and one of the truest, most convincing short dances of the season. The winning program of the night was awarded 71.06 points by the judges – a personal best score for Gabriella and Guillaume – and the French looked more than satisfied with their small gold medal for this particular segment of the event. Gabriella: “We are really happy with our performance and, of course, with this result. Our goal was to finish in the top three. Many people expected us to be first, which put indeed a bit of pressure on us, but the situation now makes us really confident for the free dance”.
A day later, skating their free dance to Adagio from Concerto No. 23 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, you could almost sense there was something magical in their performance. A program like no other program this season, performed in an almost completely silent arena, astounded by the sheer beauty and (apparent) simplicity of the dance: you could only hear the sound of their skates on the ice – and Mozart; while in the air there were Gabriella and Guillaume’s arms, caressing each other, clinching to one another, completely abandoning themselves (or were they feathers, were they leaves…?). Two weeks have passed since their performance, but my mind still remembers the roaring applause at the end of their dance, an emotional Romain Haguenauer hugging Marie-France Dubreuil at the boards – and Gabriella and Guillaume’s teary eyes while seeing the scores: 108.91 points (a new personal best for them) and 179.97 overall. “I think the end of the program, the last second when the public started to applaud, that feeling was incredible, so that was the high point. We really like to make and get surprises – and this whole season has been a big surprise for us”, a happy Guillaume said after their free skate. And they do have all the reasons to be happy: they’re the newly crowned European champions and one of the five French ice dance couples taking gold at the Europeans over the years (Christiane Guhel and Jean Paul Guhel in 1962; Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat in 2000 and 2002; Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder in 2007; Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat in 2011 and 2012; and now, in 2015, Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron).
Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte, from gold last year to silver in Stockholm
The French were joined on the podium by last year’s European champions, the Italians Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte, and by the third-place winners at 2015 Russian Nationals, Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin.
For Anna and Luca in particular, the competition in Stockholm was meant to be a redemptory one, after the upsetting beginning of the season: the 2014 European and World champions found themselves in the position of finishing their first Grand Prix, Cup of China, on the third place, behind newcomers Gabriella Papadakis/Guillaume Cizeron and Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani. The Italians later withdrew from Trophée Eric Bompard, in order to make changes to their programs, and the 2015 Europeans were their first international competition since November. Lying in 3rd place in Stockholm after the short dance to Rimsky-Korsakov’ Capriccio Espagnol, they seemed somehow relieved: “It’s a very meaningful performance for us because we haven’t been competing (internationally) since the first Grand Prix, which wasn’t a great experience. Our biggest satisfaction today, before the score, was that we felt like we skated how we can. What we wish for tomorrow is to skate as we are able to”, Anna Cappellini said at the end of the short dance.
A day later, skating to a magnificent piece of music, “Danse Macabre” by Camille Saint-Saëns, Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte scored 101.89 points and 171.52 points overall to move up one spot: “We are more happy with silver than anyone can believe. It is worth gold to us. After such a rocky start to the season and a period of self-doubt and frustration, we were not sure if we could keep competing at the level we had especially last year. We are still here, we love it, we can compete at a high level. There was no better end to this competition for us than this performance and this medal today”, said Anna at the post-event press conference.
Papadakis/Cizeron and Stepanova/Bukin, first encounter as seniors
The winners of the bronze medal in Stockholm were the Russians Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin. Fourth after the short dance, the bronze medalists at the Russian Nationals performed a smooth, intricate free dance to “Eleanor Rigby” – and this, combined with the errors made in the free dance by Elena Ilinykh and Ruslan Zhiganshin brought them the first big medal of their senior career: a bronze, at their first participation at the continental competition. Speaking for both, Alexandra seemed absolutely thrilled: „I am in shock about the result. It is like our biggest dream came true. When we saw our score, it was like an explosion of emotions”. And, standing on the podium, medals around their neck, one could say it was the triumph of youth in Stockholm: Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, on one side, and Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin, on the other one, belong to the same generation of skaters, often competing against each other in junior level. Actually, at 2013 Junior Worlds in Milan, the French won the silver behind champions Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin; two years later, at the Europeans in Stockholm – their first encounter as seniors – Gabriella and Guillaume took the lead. But, all in all, the podium at this year’s edition of the Europeans is, in fact, a confirmation of both teams’ strength and quality.
No better Carmen this season than Elena Ilinykh
Those losing a (sure) medal in Stockholm were the new-formed Russian couple, Elena Ilinykh and Ruslan Zhiganshin: second after the short dance, they dropped to fourth place overall after a series of errors in the free skate. But their Paso Doble to “Aragonaise” and “Torrero” from “Carmen Suite” by Georges Bizet was, indeed, a masterpiece – and one of the biggest moments of this edition of the Europeans, one that, even by itself, would have made the trip to Stockholm worthwhile. And, from where I stand, there’s no better Carmen this season than Elena Ilinykh; and by better I mean beautiful, convincing, masterfully playing her part….
In their red-black costumes, matching the colors of Globe Arena in Stockholm, Elena and Ruslan performed probably their best short dance so far this season, with loads of attitude and character. And for a pair at the beginning of their road together, the experience of Cup of China, Rostelecom Cup and Grand Prix Final served them well, adding intensity and drama to a short dance which was already great. (Literally) on fire throughout the 2 minutes and 50 seconds of the performance, the Russian champions earned 69.94 points, a new personal best score that made them look ecstatic in the Kiss and Cry. At the press conference, Elena explained: “We have worked so hard on the technique, we were pushed so hard by our coaches, it even came to tears. We didn’t want to let down our coaches. It is very difficult to get a level four (for the Paso Doble), there was always lacking something. It paid off that we worked so hard on it”. On the other hand, asked what it is like to skate now with Elena (who is, of course, the 2014 Olympic bronze medalist and a three-time European medalist with her former partner), Ruslan Zhiganshin said simply and convincingly: “I’m just a lucky person that I can skate with her”.
A day later, in the free skate, it was, unfortunately, a completely different story: starting brilliantly their free dance to “Appassionata”, Elena and Ruslan lost their sync in the twizzles, to completely abort a lift seconds later – and this particular line of events left them disorientated and asking themselves what had just happened: 89.89 points for a very rough skate, 159.83 overall – and a fourth place at their first Europeans as a team.
No “Butterflies and Hurricanes” at the Europeans either…
For Penny Coomes and Nicholas Buckland, bronze medalists at the Europeans last year, Stockholm will remain too a bad memory. Lying in 10th place after the short dance – their program is difficult as it can be, and they did skate it at the edge of disaster –, the British were forced to withdraw on the day of the free skate, as Nick had been taken ill; a day before, his brother Joseph had done the same, postponing his and Olivia Smart’s debut at the Europeans. For those admiring Penny and Nicholas’ set of programs for this season – and especially their amazing free dance on “Exogenesis Part 1” and “Hurricanes and Butterflies” by Muse – the withdrawal came as a shock and Nick himself felt the need to explain what had happened in Stockholm: “Unfortunately, this week has been extremely disappointing for Penny and I. We worked so hard and we were so ready for this competition that to withdraw was heartbreaking. I was hit by a stomach bug which made it impossible to compete in the Free Dance. I want to apologize to everybody that travelled to watch us or who tuned in on TV. I would have given anything to be out there doing what I love, but it was totally out of my hands. We will be back even stronger for Worlds, ready to give everything and show the world what we can do!”.
The true winners of this year’s edition of the Europeans
Taking one step back, one particular thing becomes obvious: with no less than three teams in Top 10 (the French Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron winning gold, the Spanish Sara Hurtado and Adria Diaz on the 5th place and the Danish Laurence Fournier Beaudry and Nikolaj Sørensen on the 9th place), the true winners of this year’s edition of the Europeans were, in fact, coaches Marie-France Dubreuil, Patrice Lauzon, Romain Haguenauer. What a team this is – and what an amazing training place Montreal is proving to be. Finding the most appropriate ways to put these ice dancing couples into spotlight (and I’ll add here the second Spanish couple too, Celia Robledo and Luis Fenero), this team of coaches helped their students make history; because Sara and Adria’s result in Stockholm is, in fact, the best in the history of Spanish figure skating; and so it is, in the history of Danish ice dancing, the 9th place of Fournier Beaudry/Sørensen.
“Memories are forever”
And if Laurence Fournier Beaudry and Nikolaj Sørensen’s programs in Stockholm have been one of the most pleasant surprises of these Europeans (one of their lifts is a beauty – and they do have a wonderful flow on the ice), in Sara Hurtado and Adria Diaz’ case is already sure, confirmed love. Their short dance this season – to “Tercio de Quites” by Rafael Talens, “Almoraima” by Paco de Lucia and “Alfileres de colores” by Miguel Poveda – is one of my favorites; if not indeed the one I love the most. It is flamenco in its purest form, with Sara and Adria living and breathing every bit of the music. A gem that brought them a season best score, 62.59 points, and a sixth place at the end of this particular segment of the event. A day later, with their free skate “Love is beautiful”, they managed to move from sixth to fifth place (155.81 points overall), making this a glorious moment for the Spanish figure skating.
Ever wonder why their programs have this wonderful quality of touching the viewers’ hearts? Well, that’s exactly the Spaniards’ purpose. As Sara explained, a while ago, in an interview for Inside Skating, “In every piece of art, the main objective is to transmit something, a feeling, an emotion. In every song, movie, painting, there is an emotion to give to the one watching or listening – and we see our skating like this. Of course, to get results there is so much more to do, but our main motivation is that. If not, we wouldn’t enjoy it as much; we would get bored by the middle of the season if we didn’t skate a program which we could tell a story. It’s the special part of this sport: it’s not just about scoring a goal or running faster than the others, you can touch people with your performances and create little pieces of art. I personally find this much more motivating than getting points, they are just numbers, memories are forever…”